Being the site of the first Catholic First Mass in the Philippines is a matter of intense regional pride and a source of income from tourists and pilgrims. The discussion over whether it occurred in Leyte or Butuan has been heated over the years and continues to be so, with criminal libel charges being filed against, historians for the first time in Philippine history, who upheld the Limasawa location, despite the findings of the National Quincentennial Commission’s, NQC, Mojares panel report placing it, with finality, in Limasawa.
Apart from the claim made in a fraudulent document forged by Jose E. Marco in the early 20th century, one other claim has gained traction – An alleged 1324 Mass by Odoric of Porendone in Bolinao, Pangasinan which is recorded in a plaque on the wall of the Church of St. James The Great. The event is mentioned in the official history of the church.
This, in fact, is why, according to a footnote in the report, the Mojares Commission recommended referring to the Limasawa as the First Easter Sunday Mass, rather simply the First Mass. The Bolinao claim was not explored by the panel, which focussed on the evidence Butuan and Limasawa.
Following Mongol incursions into Europe, Odoric of Pordenone was dispatched on a diplomatic mission to the Great Khan, the Mongol emperor of China. It was a journey that took him overland from Udine in Italy to Persia and the Gukf of Hormuz, from where he embarked on a ship to India and then to Java, Sumatra, in Southeat Asia. By the time he enters our period of interest he had found a companion, James of Ireland, a fellow Franciscan about whom almost nothing is known and who does not appear to have written his own version of events.
We know that he accompanied Odoric because the Commune of Udine awarded him two Marks in money for accompanying Odoric. He was at least with Odoric in Sumatra and travelled with him to China, stopping off at an island Odoric refers to as Thalamasin and Champa, now part of South East Vietnam and centre of one of the largestest empires in the region.
No serious historian has accepted the Bolinao claim and none appears to have researched its surprisingly modern origins. To do so takes time, effort and money which most scholars feel is better spent on more productive research.
Thus, while dismissing the claim in the public press there is no body of peer-reviewed scholarship on the subject.
That one writer on Odoric has red-tagged, without evidence, those who doubt the reality of Urduja and the Bolinao First Mass as Communists and sympathisers of the New People’s Army rebels, should not deter us from putting the claim under a microscope.
Red-tagging has been the last redoubt of the incompetent for more than half a century in the Philippines.
The Bolinao claim is tied up with the fictional Princess Urduja and is an excellent subject for the application of critical thinking in historical research. Having covered Ms Urduja in Fool’s Gold Volume 1, I will focus on the claims surrounding the manufactured myth of the Bolinao Mass.
Let us begin with the plaque and trace its origins. The text reads:
“Born in Pordinone (Italy) around 1275 AD, Father Odorico, a courageous and religious Franciscan missionary pioneered the spread of the Gospel in Asia and China. He travelled always barefooted among undescribable difficulties and dangers, exhausting his energies in the service of the Kingdom of God.
In 1324, after landing and taking refuge in Bolinao Pangasinan during a stormy weather, Father Odoric celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass in honor of their safe journey and his mission. He also indoctrinated and baptized many of the Malay immigrants in Bolinao.”
The plaque is very modern. In 2005 an Italian Franciscan priest, Luigi Malamocco, then 62, from Odoric’s hometown of Friuli, found supposedly ‘incontrovertible evidence’ that Odoric had landed in Bolinao in 1324 and donated the plaque to the Church of St. James the great in 2007.
Franciscan archives in Quezon City have no documents to support the claim that Odoric was ever in the Philippines.
Odoric’s own account mentions none of the events mentioned on the Malamocco plaque. Nor does it describe a place that can only be the present day Pangasinan, which promoters of the myth identify with the Thalamasin mentioned in Odoric’s account, and with the Tawalisi mentioned in the writingss of Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta in Southeast Asia.
“Near unto the said island (Java), is another country called Panten, or Thalamasin. And the king of the same country hath many islands under his dominion. In this land there are trees yielding meal, honey, and wine, and the most deadly poison in all the whole world : for against it there is but one only remedy : and that is this : if any man hath taken of the poison, and would be delivered of the danger thereof, let him temper the dung of a man in water, and so drink a good quantity thereof, and it expels the poison immediately, making it to avoid at the fundament.
Meal is produced out of the said trees after this manner. They be mighty huge trees, and when they are cut with an axe by the ground, there issueth out of the stock a certain liquor like unto gum, which they take and put into bags made of leaves, laying them for fifteen days together abroad in the sun, and at the end of those fifteen days, when the said liquor is throughly parched, it becometh meal. Then they steep it first in sea water, washing it afterward with fresh water, and so it is made very good and savoury paste, whereof they make either meat or bread, as they think good. Of which bread I myself did eat, and it is fairer without and somewhat brown within.
By this country is the sea called Mare mortuum, which runneth continually southward, into the which whosoever falleth is never seen after.
In this country also are found canes of an incredible length, namely of sixty paces high or more, and they are as big as trees. Other canes there be also called Cassan, which overspread the earth like grass, and out of every knot of them spring forth certain branches, which are continued upon the ground almost for the space of a mile.
In the said canes there are found certain stones, one of which stones, whosoever carryeth about with him, cannot be wounded with any iron: and therefore the men of that country for the most part, carry such stones with them, whithersoever they go.
Many also cause one of the arms of their children, while they are young, to be lanced, putting one of the said stones into the wound, healing also, and closing up the said wound with the powder of a certain fish (the name whereof I do not know), which powder doth immediately consolidate and cure the said wound. And by the virtue of these stones, the people aforesaid do for the most part triumph both on sea and land.
Howbeit there is one kind of stratagem, which the enemies of this nation, knowing the virtue of the said stones, do practise against them: namely, they provide themselves armour of iron or steel against their arrows, and weapons also poisoned with the poison of trees, and they carry in their hands wooden stakes most sharp and hard-pointed, as if they were iron: likewise they shoot arrows without iron heads, and so they confound and slay some of their unarmed foes trusting too securely unto the virtue of their stones.
Also of the foresaid canes called cassan they make sails for their ships, and little houses, and many other necessaries. From thence after many days’ travel, I arrived at another kingdom called Campa (Champa)…”
There is no mention of any storm, Mass, or baptisms in Pordenone’s own account, and it would seem inconceivable that he would have forgotten them or sought to suppress them, and Odoric’s description of Thalamasin, does not fit a Luzon location at all.
In fact, there are few baptisms or Masses mentioned in his entire journey.
Odoric says that Thalamasin, or Panten, is close to Java, close enough for him not to mention how long it took to get there. Champa was ‘many days’ further on. Pangasinan would have been just as many, if not more, days from Java, yet Odoric considers the travel time of no particular note.
None of the botanicals mentioned are unique to the Philippines, Sago, toddy palm, bamboo nd the poison tree, they are common throughout Southeast Asia. nor the culture described.
Given the enormous differences between Thalamasin as described by Ordoric and Tawalisi as described by Ibn Battuta, from an unsophisticated culture to a well developed rich trading just 20 years later, these cannot be the same place even though they may have been on the same island.
While Pangasinan does mean ‘Place of salt’, ‘asin’ is the Malay word for salt, it is far from the only place in Southeast Asia to tote ‘asin’ in its name. Banjarasin, for instance is on Borneo and has the added advantage that it was populated by people from Banten, Java. Banjarmasin and Banten fit Odoric’s location for Thalamasin/Panten rather better than Pangasinan and the Dyaks of Borneo certainly are congruent with Odoric’s descriptions..
The Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam, indeed, claims that Odoric arrived in Borneo in 1325, although such a precise date is questionable given the lack of precision in Odoric’s accounts.
The Rizal Connection
Jose Rizal was the first to propose Pangasinan as the location for the Tawalisi mentioned by Ibn Battuta, later identified with Odoric’s Thalamasin.
In 1888, while annotating Antonio de Morga’s 1609 history of the Philippines, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, Rizal got a letter from Dr. AB Meyer of the University of Dresden, asking for Rizal’s help in identifying place names mentioned in Chinese writings that might match match places in the Philippines.
The enquiry led him to Henry Yule’s Cathay and the Way Thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China, first published in two volumes in 1866. where he came across Ibn Battuta’s account of Tawalisi. With a pair of compasses and some assumptions as to ship’s speeds and Ibn Battuta’s departure point in Sumatra/Java, he came to the conclusion that Tawalisi was in North Luzon, Pangasinan.
Rizal’s work stayed in the correspondence with Meyer, now preserved at the Newberry Library, Chicago. Despite his intent to show the sophistication of the pre-Hispanic Filipino and how advanced its culture was prior to Spanish rule, made no mention of Tawalisis and its exotic, educated, supposedly multilingual Princess Urduja, in his De Morga, published in 1890.
Nowhere does Rizal mention Father Odoric, who is also in Yule. Possibly he had abandoned the belief that Tawalisi was Pangasinan before he published the De Morga and may never have got around to reading Odoric’s account.
Enter Austin Craig
Austin Craig was an early 20th century biographer of Jose Rizal, wrote extensively, and somewhat hagiographically, about the national hero as well as Philippine history. He was the first Chair of the Department of History of the University of the Philippines and held the Rizal professorial chair from 1912 to 1922 until fired for criticising the University’s Board of Regents, among others.
While holding the Rizal Chair, Craig made his first known reference to Odoric in a report on a research trip to the United States, December 15th, 1914, to May 5th, 1915. He mentions Odoric, Ibn Battuta, and John Margnolli as ‘visitors to these parts’ but it is unclear whether he was talking about Southeast Asia or the Philippines specifically.
He mentions none of these travellers in his 1914 publication A Thousand Years Of Philippine History Before The Coming Of The Spaniards
Two years later he published Particulars Of The Philippines’ Pre Spanish Past in which he first mentions Rizal’s opinion that Ibn Battuta’s Tawalisi was today’s Pangasinan and links it to Odoric.
His most influential reference to Odoric comes in the 1924 booklet catchily titled Gems of Philippine oratory; selections representing fourteen centuries of Philippine thought, carefully compiled from credible sources in substitution for the pre-Spanish writings destroyed by missionary zeal, to supplement the later literature stunted by intolerant religious and political censorship, and as specimens of the untrammeled present-day utterances.
Among the credible sources are the works of fraudster Jose E. Marco.
Craig’s collection includes a rather ranting speech by Princess Urduja in which she refers to “a priest of another faith from far-distant Europe”. This, says Craig, was “Friar Odoric who was there 20 years earlier”.
One can search through Ibn Battuta’s account in vain looking for any such speech or any reference to a European friar. It is a figment of Craig’s imagination, not even Filipino oratory but an American’s idea of what a Filipino queen ought to be saying.
This fictional speech is one of the two items of ‘incontrovertible evidence’ that led Father Malamocco to donate the plaque to the church in Bolinao.
Although a key source for the Odoric story, the tales of storms, a Mass and baptism cannot be laid at Craig’s door. That dubious privilege belongs to Professor Antonio del Castillo Y Tuason of Pangasinan State University in a privately published book, Princess Urduja, Queen of the Orient Seas, before and after her time, in the political orbit of the Shri-vi-ja-ya and Madjapahit Maritime Empire (A pre-hispanic history of the Philippines).
The Sins of Professor Antonio del Castillo Y Tuason
Published in 1986 and dedicated to then-president Corazon Aquino, Princess Urduja, Queen of the Orient Seas, should be mandatory reading for history students as a gross example of poor research, poor reasoning and lack of critical thinking skills.
Tuason’s credibility suffers when he refers to eminent historian Cesar Adjib Majul as ‘Cesar Mogul’ and Henry Yule as ‘Henry Ulley’. These are not typos but are repeated throughout the book with neither name ever being spelled correctly. Which raises the question of whether Professor del Castillo Y Tuason had actually read the sources he cites.
Tuason references Craig’s Urduja speech in Gems of Philippine Oratory as if it was a genuine, accurate record of a reference to Odoric in Pangasinan from the Ibn Battuta account. Had Professor Tuason actually consulted Ibn Battuta either in its original language or in the many English translations, including the one he cites, he would have been aware that there is no basis to the speech.
In Tuason’s work there are no Southeast Asian seafarers in trade in Southeast Asia, only Arabs and Chinese. He states that Odoric’s ‘Arab crew’ which Odoric does not mention and Odoric himself refer to “Islas de Tempestados”. Had Tuason actually read Odoric he would have known that the Friar makes no mention of “Islas de Tempestados”.
Similarly, in Tuason’s world, there are no indigenous natives in Bolinao, only Malay immigrants.
In one of several examples of confirmation bias, Tuason writes “(Historians have not) contradicted Austin Craig’s botanical flora of Sago producing Starch, the syrup of buri, and cordials of native wine, the famous local basi. Which were direct incontrovertible primary evidence Father Odoric landed in Bolinao”. These botanicals are endemic to most of Southeast Asia, none are unique to the Philippines and neither Craig nor Tuason have identified a single item unique to Pangasinan or, indeed, the rest of the Philippines. That alone contradicts the assumption that the presence of these botanicals shows that Odoric landed in the islands which now constitute the Philippines.
It is, therefore, no evidence at all that Odoric landed in Bolinao rather than Borneo or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, based on the friar’s account.
The second assumption made by Tuason is that because Odoric, officially the Blessed Odoric today, was a member of a Friar Order and may have been a priest, not only is everything that Odoric wrote inerrant, which would include the turtle as big as the dome at St Anthony’s in Padua under which he dictated his adventures, 15 metres wide, 45 feet, but everything claimed by others about Odoric’s purported Mass and baptisms, is also true regardless of the existence of documentary evidence.
This is known as argumentum ab auctoritate, argument from authority, a cardinal sin in historical analysis. Someone’s eminence, fame, respectability, or religiosity is not evidence that what they are saying is correct or truthful.
In Chapter 2 of his book, discussing the alleged documentary evidence, Tauson engages in an orgy of criticism of William Henry Scott’s work disputing the supposed mass and baptisms, seeing it as an attack by a Protestant – Scott was a Methodist missionary as well as an eminent historian – without once identifying any error in Scott’s work.
In a conspiracy theory-driven footnote Tuason snipes at Scott’s Protestatism: “The reader of the “Black Cross” by Dr. Luther Parker would only smile at our stupidity as to our national history. The Protestant sector are knowledgable on this point.”
Scott had read Odoric’s account of Thalamasin and concluded that he had not landed in Luzon and, if he had landed anywhere in the Philippines, there was no evidence of the mass and baptisms creditted to him by others.
Similarly, Tuason insists that historians who do not accept that Urduja as a real historical figure and his belief in Odoric’s mass and baptism is promoting “assassins, sparrows, anarchists, communist, idealistic leaders of NPA (New People’s Army)”. This variety of Ad Hominem is know as red-tagging, a Marcos-era technique that has recently been revived and is invariably symptomatic of incompetence rather than valid argument.
The jewel in Tuason’s crown is not an ancient document nor any account by Odoric or Ibn Battuta, but folklore recorded by Luther Parker.
Luther Parker went to the Philippines as a Thomasite, one of thousands of American educators name after the SS Thomas which carried the initial batch to the islands. He became an administrator in various parts of Luzon and dabbled in archaeology and anthropology, hob-nobbing with eminent scholars such as Otley-Beyer, Robert Fox and Austin Craig. He is best known for his contemporary photographs of the provinces lodged with the University of the Philippines.
While Tuason refers to Luther Parker’s Black Cross as a book published in 1917 or 1918, it is not listed in any library or list of Parker’s books. Tuason’s reference to the Black Cross story as a transcript suggests that it was a legend recorded by Parker and published in a magazine.
Indeed, Parker published local legends in Philippine Magazine and others. Despite sterling efforts by historians and librarians no original text for The Black Cross by Luther Parker has surfaced so we must examine what is presented by Professor Tuason, with caution given the foregoing factors.
Parker’s legend is the sole source of the claim that Odoric was driven ashore by a storm, held a Mass and baptised the local people. Tuason presents few direct quotes from Parker so it is not possible to know how accurately he represents what Parker actually says.
Tuason makes no mention of the fact that these important elements are missing from Odoric’s own account, including Parker’s ‘Islas de Tempestados’. It was Luther Parker who suggested that the First Mass in the Philippines was held in Bolinao, but we do not know what qualification Parker applied in the original text. The baptisms, however seem to be of Tuason’s assumption rather than Parker’s text since he writes: “He must have also blessed and baptised people around him.”
Also from Tuason’s pen comes the suggestion that: “Father Odoric must have learned easily their dialect” which would have made Odoric a miraculously fast learner since he was in Thalamasin for a day or so at most.
Tuason claims that Austin Craig corroborated the legend by adding that the Friar was served breakfast by King “Ari” Dalisay. The name ‘Dalisay’ only exists in Craig’s fictional Urduja speech, based on Ibn Battuta, who says the king was called Tawalisi, the same as the country, while Odoric gives no name at all.
It would appear that the legend recorded by Parker spoke of a priest with a black cross being driven ashore by a storm. The assumption that this occurred in Bolinao and was Odoric was provided by Parker’s analysis and does not reflect the Odoric account. The baptism was an invention of Tauson going far beyond what the data provides and, indeed, contrary to Odoric’s record. Note that Parker was working at precisely the time Austin Craig was attempting to promote Urduja as a historical person in Pangasinan and the two certainly discussed the legend.
A community recalls events accurately only up to 150 years after it occurred. After that come additions and accretions which were not part of the original event, sometimes changing names of those involved, as appears to have happened in Cebuano folklore regarding Lapulap.. Parker was recording folklore some 500 years after the event so while some trace of what actually happened certainly remains it is difficult to determine what those elements might be.
It may be relatively safe to suggest that the relevant elements are priests being forced ashore, with a black cross, who carried out a mass and, possibly, conducted baptisms.
The hospitality with which Odoric was supposedly treat in Bolinao is in stark contrast to the reports by missionaries landing at Bolinao, who were usually attacked on sight by the local people.
If we are to look for events which may have been drawn into the legend recorded by Parker, there are some tempting reports and occurrences that fit the bill, including a diplomatic disaster.
In 1574 a Chinese warlord, Limahong, attacked Manila and was narrowly defeated. Manila was under the governorship of Lavazeres, who sent an embassy, including two Augustinian monks, who met with the viceroy of Fukkien to establish a deal that would help protect Manila, which was vulnerable to large scale pirate attacks and threatened Spanish control, as well as trading relationships.
The emissaries asked for a Chinese port to be ceded to Spain, in the same way that China had ceded Macau to Portugal, and for missionaries to be admitted to China. The viceroy turned down th offers and requests, despite them kowtowing to the viceroy, and sent the embassy back to Manila, in 1575 along with three Chinese captains with rich presents for Lavezares.
By the time the mission arrived back in Manila, Lavezares had been replaced by Governor Francisco Sande. Things turned sour when the Chinese captains refused to hand over to Sande the presents intended for Lavezares. Sande then set out to undermine Spanish-China relations in a fit of pique.
In 1576 a Chinese war vessel arrived with presents for Sande from the Emperor and agreeing to cede an island to Spain. Sande committed a diplomatic faux pas by both declining to reciprocate with presents for the Emperor and rejecting the offer of an island for Spain.
To further irritate the Emperor, Sande insisted that the junk take two monks on its return, then made plans to invade China.
Understandably miffed, the Chinese unloaded the two monks at Bolinao at a time when there were no other monks in the area.
.Nothing is known of what happened to these two clerics but their abandonment in Bolinao would satisfy one of the elements of the legend.
There is one traceable reference to a black cross on Luzon in the region where Luther Parker was working. It still existes, in Pampanga.
In 1571 the chieftain of Lubao, Makabulos surrendered to Martin de Goiti, who had been ordered to explore and occupy that part of Pampanga, now known as Santa Cruz. As part of the proceedings Makabulos was given a black cross, which he is said to have buried before departing to other places.
The cross was recovered in the 1800s, Its authenticity is supported by a carbon dating of around 400 years, the age of the original tree when cut down rather than the age of the cross, and it has been an item of veneration every since.
This may well be the inspiration for the legend reported by Parker. The closeness of the two events in time is certainly suggestive.
The evidence for the Odoric mass at Bolinao is a long way from being incontrovertible. It is a manufactured thing of outright fiction, unsubstantiated assumption, imagination and wishful thinking.
One parting thought Some social media and websites, refer to the purportted Odoric Mass as the first Christmas Mass, for which there is no evidence. Christmas trees became a Christian tradition only in the 16th Century in Germany. They became mainstream when the husband of Queen Victoria, a German, introduced them to England in the 19th Century, from where they spread to the rest of Europe. In Odoric’s time they were a pagan symbol. Could it be that the name Yule, from Henry Yule, which is also a term for the Christmas season, inspired that bit of creative imagination?